Over the past week or so I’ve read a few blog postings and articles about how to get a job in international development or as an aid worker (Guardian and Aid worker video). I wouldn’t consider myself to be working in, what most people would call, international development (I’ll come onto that later) and certainly not an aid worker. But in any case I thought I’d add my tuppence worth as to how I arrived in the job I’m doing now. Given my lack of (conscious) career planning I’m not sure whether any of this should be taken as sound career advice, but maybe my experience will help someone.
As probably many people reading this already know, I worked at the Open University (UK) for over 7 years. After this amount of time I decided that I needed a change. Not that I particularly wanted to leave the OU, rather, I needed a new challenge and to look at what other options might be out there for me. I’d often considered applying to VSO (Voluntary Services Overseas), but either didn’t think I had the skills/experience needed or was too busy doing other things. I certainly didn’t apply with the explicit intention of then working full time in international development. My first piece of luck was that VSO had a placement available for a project directly in the area I had most experience in (elearning, as I’d been working on at the OU), I’d expected to be offered a placement doing general ICT infrastructure development and skills training.
Whilst working in Mekelle (Ethiopia) I had my second piece of luck, which was to become involved with a project from Alcalá University (near Madrid) which was also trying to develop the elearning capacity and facilities at Mekelle Uni. I extended my VSO placement specifically to continue working on this project and now, here I am almost a year after finishing my VSO placement, working as project manager at Alcalá Uni on the same project in Mekelle and preparing to go back to Ethiopia in a few weeks time. Admittedly my personal circumstances have helped me hugely, I’ve been able to be very flexible as to where I live and be able to travel anywhere anytime. Many other VSO volunteers I knew in Ethiopia returned to their home countries and similar jobs.
So… back to why I don’t consider myself to be an international development worker… I prefer to consider myself to be working on an elearning and ICT project which happens to be in Ethiopia. Most people would probably describe that as international development, although I could work on a similar project anywhere (Russia, Japan, Argentina etc), yes, the circumstances (working culture, state of infrastructure etc) would be different, but aren’t they different in every country, even every organisation, anyway?
For the work I’m now involved in and how we’d like to move forward, keeping ourselves distanced from being seen as an NGO/charity is probably our best way forward. My feeling is that being seen as an NGO/charity may perpetuates the impression that we’re there simply to donate equipment, which then ends up being installed but inoperable and unsupported after only a few months. There is certainly still a place for charities/NGOs etc, especially working in relief work, healthcare & education for the extremely poor, but not so much for ICT development.
Probably the only advice I could give to anyone wanting to get into a similar field (which is much the same as you’ll find in any other article about careers in international development) which is that you must to spend some time abroad (probably volunteering) to really gain an appreciation of the issues and challenges faced. Just having a Masters or some other qualification won’t be enough. Apart from the few days in pre-departure training with VSO, I have no formal training or qualifications in international development.
Perhaps I’ve just been very lucky or perhaps I made my own luck, I’ll leave it to you to decide which!